Why we need leaders on the front line

Employers spend thousands on leadership development but rarely see the return on investment or a corresponding increase in engagement. Peter Russian, CEO of transformation specialist Remarkable, looks at the importance of creating leaders at all levels.

According to Deloitte, companies spend around $31 billion (£22.4 billion) on leadership development annually - that's a lot of money to spend if you're not securing the outcomes you need.

But despite this significant investment, companies that measure employee engagement have seen little improvement over the last 10 years.

Even with the UK's record high employment rates, it has surprisingly low levels of employee engagement. Gallup's State of the Global Workplace report from last October estimates that just 11% of UK employees feel engaged at work.

This may go some way to explaining the ongoing challenge of low productivity.

It would be a difficult equation in stable market conditions. But the world we operate in is changing at a rapid pace. Just consider the impact of new technology for example.

The customer is always right

Smart phones and social media are giving customers greater choice and a far louder voice. The reality is that when a customer is dissatisfied with any aspect of service, the company providing the service should expect them to inform the world… immediately.

Take the travel industry and the power of TripAdvisor as an example of how much and how quickly an industry can be transformed by this trend. Negative reviews make or break a reputation overnight. This is fast becoming the reality for all businesses - just ask United Airlines, whose reputation took an immediate nose dive after a customer was dragged off an overbooked flight.

To succeed in this dynamic environment, employees dealing with customers, at the coalface, must be able to make decisions, respond to customers' needs and be able to take control of situations.

Giving employees greater responsibility could be a single solution to both problems.

If organisations can enable, encourage and support their people to step forward and take the lead, then it's safe to expect those employees will feel more engaged, will work harder and perform better, and that their customers will experience a more flexible and dedicated service as a result.

Intent-based leadership

That's why the concept of Intent-Based Leadership (ILB) - developed by American leadership expert and former US nuclear submarine commander, David Marquet - strikes such a chord right now.

IBL evolved after Marquet transformed the US Navy's worst performing submarine into the highest achieving operational vessel. He went on to write the Forbes best-seller 'Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of turning Followers into Leaders'.

IBL was founded on the experience and principles of giving control and driving decision making at all levels - creating leaders, not followers - to ultimately deliver success.

It is a fundamentally new way of thinking about leadership, which can help CEOs and those in other senior roles reassess how they, and the organisations they lead, can respond to the way the world around them is changing rapidly.

Leaders at all levels

To bring this idea of leaders at all levels to life, it is vital that both employees and their managers understand fully the organisation's purpose, values and overall aims, and where they fit into them.

Which brings us back to 'leadership development'. Organisations should get a better return on their $30bn investment.

Traditionally businesses organised themselves with leaders and managers doing the thinking, and everyone else getting on and doing the job.

And consequently, leadership development was focused on taking a small number of leaders out of the business to train and polish them to be 'better' using case studies and flip charts and leadership models. That's a great way to create more effective followers. But we've identified that successful organisations need leaders at the front line.

What's really going to move the dial and drive the transformation required? It must begin with development that takes place within the workplace and includes 'live' observations related to specific challenges and scenarios that an organisation faces.

Individuals need to be supported on the job and given feedback in real time that is personal, relevant to their roles and that can be applied to immediate effect.

Don't turn your back

Successful sports coaches don't just have great conversations and then turn their back on the action, and to truly support organisations meet these challenges, we need to learn that lesson.

That's how organisations will get employees at every level to feel able to respond dynamically to customers, to be confident they have the freedom to make the right choice, and the responsibility that comes with authority.

And that's how we can transform our ideas about leadership and our organisational structures to create companies of engaged and empowered thinkers, not just doers who wait for instruction.